Cavafy’s “Days of 1901” is missing some last words. On the page, this elegy sings the recession into time of something that can return only at longer and longer intervals. On its returns it still looks like love, but what there is to see of that love is now coarsening and blurring under time’s accreting memories. The memories are of youth and purity: qualities that are now less accessible to the touch of sensitivity than they were, hidden farther and farther beneath the darkening eaves of upper limits. Youth goes louche, and the days of 1901 go historical.
Formally, too, the poem’s wit is about the past tense. “I am a reminder that there is nothing new about what you feel,” says Cavafy’s Greek sonnet, and it says that on the authority of being in Greek, and a sonnet. But the little hint of budding life within the past culminates in a line so unhistorical that it hasn’t yet taken recorded form. Classical norms would grant “Days of 1901” one more line to bring to a merciful reconciliation the contradiction between immediate beauty and the poignancy of having lived prior, but here at this poem’s end there is only erasure. There ought to be six lines extending all the way to the end, and the prosodic category-name for that imperative, sestet, implies that at the end there ought to be six because a sonnet has earned the right to say and mean that there always have been six. But this sestet begins (in Daniel Mendelsohn’s translation), “The beauty of his nine-and-twenty years.” In Cavafy’s Alexandria, there can be no always. The days of 1901 are partially in ruins, like all the other days.
Look toward the margins and you’ll notice that off the American coast the days of 1901 arrived with an escort of battleships. Among the squadron, the days’ beauty wasn’t the poignant beauty of an individual, like the beauty of Cavafy’s slowing, thickening 29-year-old; they were as bright and delicate and grateful to the touch as new clean well-printed banknotes. Theirs was a Daisy Buchanan beauty: the beauty whose defining quality is the being prized. Competing for the beauty, rich men raced yachts through those days, and the love of the collective that defines love for us was there to protect them in steel boats with flags that snapped in the wind, and the apparatus of history was at hand to inscribe the rushing waves with records of love’s eager speed in a perennial Roman typeface.
The octave of Cavafy’s sonnet read,
The key word was “Almost,” probably to be read as an ironic indirect aside. But in 1901 America a different flesh found its voice in the straightforward positivity of Whitman’s “As Adam Early in the Morning,”
Touch me, touch the palm of your hand to my body as I pass.
In its Walt warble it added: “Because I am passing through this watery element as fast as can be, and time is money.”
C. P. Cavafy: Complete Poems, trans. Daniel Mendelsohn. Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. The facsimile of the manuscript is online at several sites.
“U.S.R.C. Onondaga“: Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016804970/. Post-processed.